Inside audioBoom: the British internet radio company doing something different
In the space of two years, almost everything has changed at internet radio company audioBoom: its CEO; its entire business model; the technology that powers the service; even its name. This turnaround has seen the service grow from around 25,000 registered users to more than five million, and last year the company was listed on the London Stock Exchange for the first time.
This success hasn’t come without pain, however, not least the alienation of the man – and many of the loyal users, including celebrities such as Red Dwarf actor Robert Llewellyn – who helped build the company in the first place.
So, how did this British company reinvent itself to become a rival to giants such as SoundCloud? And what technology is it using to ensure this growth continues?
From Audioboo to audioBoom
audioBoom started life in 2009 as Audioboo, under the evangelistic leadership of founder and CEO Mark Rock. Rock wanted to create a service that democratised radio, that allowed anyone with a smartphone to record a short audio clip and share it with a community of like-minded listeners, whether they were reporting from a war zone in Libya or sitting in their living room with a cup of tea.
The service was an instant hit. Media outlets including Channel 4 News, The Guardian and even PC Pro used it to bring live audio reports to new audiences. Celebrities such as Chris Moyles and the ubiquitous Stephen Fry jumped aboard. Little more than a year after Audioboo launched, Rock was listed at number 14 in The Guardian’s list of the 100 most influential people in the media, ranking above Rebekah Brooks, Steve Ballmer and The Guardian’s own editor, Alan Rusbridger.
The Guardian’s panel of judges described Audioboo as “the single most important new media tool of the past two years”. Having already “changed the way we use audio, now it is going to reinvent the way we think about digital radio”, the panel concluded. There was just one problem: nobody had figured out how it was going to make money.
By mid-2012, the company’s investors had grown tired of the red ink. The service had a core userbase of only 25,000 users and, premium accounts aside, had no obvious way of earning revenue from them. The business model had failed, and a new chief executive, Robert Proctor, was brought in to rescue the company. Rock was sidelined into the role of president before, somewhat acrimoniously, quitting the company early in 2013.
“The issue was probably quite fundamental,” Proctor says when asked to explain what was wrong with Audioboo when he joined. “Most people just don’t like the sound of their own voice. Twenty-five thousand regular monthly users after three-and-a-half years probably proved there isn’t much of a model in that business.”
audioBoom’s old website before its snazzy redesign
Instead, Proctor decided to refocus the business on providing a personalised feed of audio from professional broadcasters, such as the BBC, Sky Sports News Radio and talkSPORT. Instead of relying on one man and his phone, Audioboo would deliver audio from the big brands to a larger and (potentially) more lucrative audience.
However, to do that, the company needed to change its name. “The basic principle behind the ‘boo’ becoming ‘boom’ is that we have a lot more sports and entertainment packages now, and none of them like to be ‘booed’,” says Proctor. “We needed a new name that was more positive.”
Reshaping the audioBoom app
The switch from Audioboo to audioBoom was more than cosmetic. The company relaunched its app in September and brought with it a fundamental set of new technologies that attempt to improve the listening experience. While the functions to record and share your own audio haven’t been removed entirely, they’ve been stripped back, and the focus has switched to a continuous stream of audio clips from broadcasters, based on the listener’s predefined interests.
When you first fire up the app, you’re asked to choose from a menu of topics you might be interested in – sport, entertainment, comedy, music – each of which drills down into a series of subcategories, such as football, rugby and cycling. However, audioBoom doesn’t rely purely on stated preferences: it has devised an algorithm that tailors the content of the feed to the user’s listening habits.
“There’s a mix of local intelligence in the app and on the servers,” says chief technology officer Jonathan del Strother. “The app considers the categories that you’ve been listening to, how long you spend listening to them, what you tend to skip past and so on. Our servers use similar inputs, but spread across all our users’ listening habits, to introduce you to new groups of content.”
Read on to find out how audioBoom is planning for success